A Geospatial Information System (GIS) is one of the biggest developments in the history of mapping today. Geospatial technology is widely utilized today, with urban planners using it to organize and develop more efficient cities. Other public uses of GIS include identifying water line breaks, providing information about energy line work, observing flood frequency and giving citizens information about where to find key locations.
Beyond the public uses, there are many private ones that are integral to many businesses' decision making and daily tasks. GIS also plays a key role in GPS technology, meaning that you probably utilize GIS technology daily in your personal life, whether you know it or not.
As public and private sectors use geospatial technology so widely, its importance in our modern world is unquantifiable. To get some sense of just how crucial it is, one should have a firm grasp of its history along with understanding what it is.
What Is GIS and Its Uses?
Due to the widespread use of GIS, it's important to understand what it is and how it's used. A GIS is a system that's constructed to capture and store geographical data before manipulating, analyzing, managing and presenting that data. GIS can also be referred to as a geospatial information system. Whether you call it a geographic or geospatial information system, the same definition applies. GIS refers to a system that deals with spatial data related to locations throughout the world.
Along with GIS providing spatial data about specific locations, it also includes attribute data that gives more information about the different spatial features of the location. To understand the difference between spatial data and attribute data, think of an office building. The spatial data would simply be the location of the office, while the attribute data could be the name of the company that owns the office, the type of industry they're in and the number of employees working there, among other data points.
Both spatial and attribute data make up an effective GIS. By combining these two data types, GIS can use spatial analysis to solve problems. GIS is not only software. A solid GIS also refers to the methods and people that are employed in conjunction with software to manage huge data sets, display maps that contain useful information and support spatial analysis.
People typically think of GIS as closely related to cartography. Like a cartographic document, the GIS has a base map that can then have added data placed on top of it. One of the big appeals of GIS is that it can have an unlimited amount of data added to it and adjusted as needed. When it comes to making maps, many organizations immediately turn to GIS for assistance.
Who Uses GIS?
GIS software is used by a variety of individuals and organizations. For example, research institutions, land-use planners, government agencies, businesses, environmental scientists, individuals and communities all use GIS to accomplish different goals.
How Is It Used?
People use GIS for spatial pattern identification, remote sensing, the presentation of spatial relationships and the storage of information. Popular applications include satellite-based navigation, geocaching, geotagging and online map projects.
Government agencies typically use GIS to organize their geographic data and help them plan. For example, the CDC uses a GIS system to discover disease rates in varying locations, the closest healthcare facilities in an area and where they need to place new facilities. Additionally, first responders can use GIS to find the fastest route to an emergency and keep track of the number of incidents in an area.
Businesses also regularly use GIS to see if they should open a business in a given location and to track their assets. In the insurance industry, GIS is used to determine where there is more risk, such as high flooding areas, helping them decide who should need to pay higher premiums. Of course, these are only a small fraction of the uses of GIS. Its applications are virtually endless.
The History of GIS and Geospatial Technology
The history of geospatial technology began fairly recently, but it has already gone through several developments. To get a firm understanding of the GIS history timeline, you'll want to know everything from its early beginnings in the 1800s to its
implementation in today's society.Early Beginnings of GIS
A rudimentary version of GIS first appeared in 1832 in the form of Charles Picquet's map of 48 districts of Paris that detailed the levels of the cholera outbreak in each district. This map is largely recognized as one of the earliest versions of a heat map.
Later, John Snow would use the same mapping principles to show where cholera deaths occurred in London in 1854. He took the use of the map further, though, by using it to present an argument based on the map's data. After examining the data, Snow discovered that a number of infections were all clustered around a public water pump, giving him a key piece of evidence to argue that the outbreak was coming from that location.
The Father of GIS
It wasn't until the 1960s that GIS was officially introduced, with historians widely viewing Roger Tomlinson as the originator of the system. The onus for its development began when he, like other leaders in his field, wanted more information about geographic data than had ever been available in the past.
The origins of GIS began on an airplane ride that Tomlinson took from Ottawa to Toronto, Canada. At the time, he was a young geographer, who happened to be sitting by the newly appointed head of the Canada Land Inventory. This official, Lee Pratt, was trying to compile all of the country's productive resources in a map-based catalog. As the two sat next to each other, they struck up a conversation that would prove to be revolutionary.
While Tomlinson listened to Pratt describe how he was planning to compile thousands of maps and use them to figure out where wealth was within the landscape of Canada, he knew that he could be of service to Pratt's project. Three months after speaking on the plane, Pratt called Tomlinson to ask for help with the project, as they needed a computer system to handle the huge amount of geographic data they needed to process.
Over the course of his short career, Tomlinson had been plagued by the challenge of figuring out how to show large sets of data on a map. To overcome the difficulties, he had been attempting to program a computer system that could handle a great deal of geographic information.
Informed by his past work figuring out the best locations for tree plantations in Kenya, he had been trying to find a way to use computer processing to assess large sets of data. His thought was that if he could transform polygons—the technical word for a map area—into data points that could then be related to other data points, then each location on the map could include endless amounts of information.
Eventually, he had a breakthrough by realizing that you could put identical maps on top of one another with different polygons and still have a composite map that made sense. After Pratt brought Tomlinson in, they both realized that they had too much data to process. To fix this, they partnered with IBM to build programming software that could handle all of the data. Eventually, this project would find success, creating the Canada Geographic Information System, which is widely recognized as the first GIS project.
Stages of GIS Development
While the boundaries of technological advancement often overlap with one another, you can think of GIS development in three main stages, with the fourth stage currently taking place. Below you can find a brief overview of each stage:
1. The First Stage of GIS (1960–1975)
The opening stage of GIS would run through the 1960s and into the 1970s. Tomlinson and Pratt's project didn't take place in isolation, as other innovators were also working on the problem of processing such a great deal of spatial data. While it's true that the Canada Geographic Information System pioneered by Tomlinson was the first operational GIS to exist, it didn't occur in a vacuum.
Along with Tomlinson's GIS, Howard Fisher from Harvard was putting together a program that could combine mapped data into one space that would be useful for spatial analysis. Additionally, the U.S. Census Bureau began to experiment with software that could plot out demographic data by neighborhood blocks. As the development of GIS technology in this era was so decentralized and had only a few national agencies using it, it can largely be considered a time of pioneering.
2. The Second Stage of GIS (1975–1990)
The following stage of GIS ran through the 1970s and ended in 1990. This period was marked by innovators continuing to develop spatial awareness and the processes needed to handle all of the spatial data. Much of this innovation would occur in academic centers like Esri and Harvard.
Notable achievements in this era included the development of the Odyssey GIS, the first vector GIS, by Harvard Laboratory Computer Graphics and the production of GIS software compatible with minicomputers and then microcomputers by Esri, a large GIS software company. The period also saw more computer cartography products created, which led to more GIS software vendors. Academically, the period also saw the first pieces of published work and scholarly conferences arise on the subject of geospatial technology.
3. The Third Stage of GIS (1990-2010)
The beginning of the third stage took place in the 1990s, with the period characterized by making the technology more user-centric and easier to use. One of the watershed moments of this period was the debut of GIS on desktops. Based on the advancements that took place in the 70s and 80s, Esri created a desktop solution called ArcView.
This desktop solution gave users the ability to produce mapping systems with a Windows-based interface. The program would go on to become standard across the industry. As a result of its ease of use and graphical user interface, governments, defense organizations and businesses, among other organizations, adopted the program.
After ArcView hit the market, much of the rest of the third stage would be marked by the widespread adoption of GIS technology across a variety of industries and public organizations. This stage saw the technology become cheap enough for smaller businesses and local governments to utilize.
For the previous decade and halfway through the 2000s, most geospatial software could only be accessed on a desktop. In 2005, Google would bring the technology to a variety of devices with Google Maps, introducing geospatial technology to billions of people all around the world. To make this achievement possible, the industry shifted from desktop-based GIS to cloud-based GIS. The rest of the decade would see more cloud-based GIS programs become popular.
How Is GIS Used Today?
Currently, we are in the fourth stage of GIS development, with GIS today characterized by an increase in open source technology. For example, the data science community interacts with data through programming languages rather than GUI mapping tools. To make their job easier, geospatial companies included free add-ins that made it possible for users to transfer data from one program to another. These add-ins and open source GIS programs have made commercial mapping software more accessible to users.
In a broader sense, people all over the world are constructing open source GIS software that can be used by anyone free of cost. In response to this new trend, some companies have started to try to offer more incentives for people to choose their platforms, such as additional services and tools.
This era of GIS advancement has seen cloud-based GIS become standard, but it doesn't mean that desktop-based GIS is obsolete. Instead, desktops have transitioned into the role of clients for cloud-based GIS platforms. They allow users to conduct web services with tools and data. Additionally, the rise of mobile devices makes it even more possible to access GIS technology from anywhere rather than just the office.
What’s In Store for Geospatial
In the near future, geospatial technology will become even more present in our day-to-day lives. With smart technology becoming more integrated into a variety of everyday objects, the sensors on these objects will be able to record more spatial data that can then be used by companies for a variety of applications.
Consumers will also demand that components of GIS continue to grow in functionality when it comes to software applications. For example, navigation and ride-sharing apps are always looking to improve their geospatial technology so that they can give more accurate live updates to consumers. Governmental agencies and organizations will also continue to grow their ability to track assets.
Additionally, the future looks good for GIS professionals. As more GIS software hits the market, companies will need people who know how to interpret and utilize all aspects of GIS technology to keep up with their competitors. For data specialists, they'll be focused on continuing to improve their ability to collect, clean and format spatial information. Alongside data specialists, GIS software developers will also be attempting to develop even more powerful spatial-powered apps that utilize the wealth of data available.
Contact Duncan-Parnell With Any GIS Questions
The history of Geographic Information Systems showcases just how the importance of GIS has grown over the years with the rise of new technological applications. From the early pioneering stages to the present, GIS has evolved and gained more applications that make it essential to the proper functioning of governments and private businesses, along with the navigation needs of individuals.
If you have any questions related to mapping services, surveying and GIS training, you'll want to speak to geospatial experts. Duncan-Parnell provides a number of geospatial solutions, and our experience has cemented us as leaders in the industry. Contact us today to speak to one of our representatives about your GIS needs.